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‘Posh boys’ and ‘swivel-eyed loons’: Conservative leaders and grassroots unrest in perspective

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Grassroots disaffection in the Conservative Party has been growing for some time, and the dismissive reference to 'swivel-eyed loons', allegedly made by one of David Cameron's inner circle, has highlighted the distance between party leader and party activists. This is nothing new in Conservative politics: there have been dangerous rifts between leaders and followers in the past, from which Cameron could learn. The most serious of these was in 1922, when discontent at the grassroots was a key factor in the revolt of Conservative MPs against continuing the coalition government with David Lloyd George and his Liberal supporters, and led to the fall of the Conservative leader, Austen Chamberlain. If Cameron demonstrates similar inflexibility, he may suffer the same fate.

There are always tensions between a party's leader and its membership. Members' voluntary participation is motivated by strongly-held views, reinforced by frequent contact with fellow activists, which they rarely question, particularly in party strongholds. However, to win power, the party leader must be responsive to less partisan public opinion.

Many activists understand this imperative and - especially when their party has been heavily defeated or long out of office - will tolerate the watering down of their ideal programme for government. Conflict arises when the leadership seems to sacrifice too much to expediency and render unlikely the achievement of ultimate policy goals. Add to this poor electoral prospects, and party confidence and cohesion can crumble quite rapidly. When Stanley Baldwin's party leadership nearly came to an end in the autumn of 1930, one of his front-bench colleagues warned that 'things are moving so fast that unless something happens quickly, everything and everybody will collapse like a pack of cards'.

A major cause of Baldwin's problems was the threat from the Empire Crusade, a Conservative pressure group demanding complete economic protectionism, which had been launched as a separate party in February 1930. Like UKIP today, its focus on a single policy that was popular with constituency activists and party donors caused widespread alarm amongst Conservative MPs. This became acute in the summer of 1930, as Crusade candidates split the Conservative vote in a series of by-elections.

In difficult times, party activists often argue that only a clear and unqualified policy, presented with vigour, commitment and in populist terms, can restore morale and bring electoral victory. In the Conservative Party, this was the view of both the tariff reformers in the Edwardian era (who wanted a complete protectionist system, including taxes on food imports), the advocates of retrenchment and protectionism in the 1920s and early 1930s (who were convinced that substantial tax cuts were the only way out of recession), and those who ousted Edward Heath from the leadership in 1975, who wanted a more free-market approach to economic policy. In each case, pressure from the grassroots and backbench MPs eventually forced a change of party policy - and in 1911 and 1975, a change of leader as well. Today there are similar calls over immigration restriction, tax cuts and a referendum on Europe, and Cameron has already been forced to give ground on the first and last of these.

A party leader who appears to ignore or thwart supporters' strongly-held beliefs risks the corrosion of their authority in an internecine struggle that also damages their party's public credibility. This was the fate of Arthur Balfour, who steadily lost ground to the tariff reformers between 1903 and 1911, and of John Major, buffeted by Eurosceptic rebels and ministerial sniping from 1992 to 1997. If, as for Austen Chamberlain during the decline of the Lloyd George Coalition in 1922 and Cameron now, party unrest is combined with economic recession, an unpopular coalition pact and dissent in the Cabinet, reconnecting with the activists may become impossible.

Tensions will only be defused by a substantial change of direction, such as Stanley Baldwin's adoption of economic protectionism, including duties on food imports, in October 1930, or the elimination of the divisive issue, as when the rebels opposing reform of the imperial administration in India failed to prevent passage of the devolutionary India Act in June 1935. Otherwise, even if careful party management can put a lid on the volcano, the magma of unrest still seethes underneath and is likely to erupt with even greater force in future. As Balfour's experiences of 1903-11 and Major's of 1992-97 both show, all else is just crisis management and a recipe for an ignominious slide to defeat.

Does Cameron, like Baldwin in 1930, still possess enough credibility and goodwill amongst the activists to enable him to change the agenda? If not, he may drift into a dead-end like Austen Chamberlain in 1922: tied to policies that alienate his supporters, and seen as failing to defend their core values and the distinctive Conservative identity.

If Cameron is to reassert his authority over his party, he will need to demonstrate the adaptability of Stanley Baldwin, who projected the public image of the 'plain man' and was considered by his successor, Neville Chamberlain, to possess 'a certain simple shrewdness'. In October 1930, Baldwin seized the initiative, with a dramatic shift in economic policy which took his critics by surprise. He recovered grassroots support and undercut the appeal of the Empire Crusade, which a few months later agreed to a pact on the Conservative leadership's terms, and ceased its campaign.

At all costs, Cameron must avoid the fatal inflexibility and aloofness of Austen Chamberlain, who was described by his Party Chairman, Sir George Younger, as being 'obstinate as a mule'. He will have to shrug off the image of being a superior 'posh boy', surrounded by a like-minded Etonian elite, who lacks experience and understanding of the world of his followers. Whether 'swivel-eyed loons' was actually said or not matters little: if it seems credible to the grassroots that this is how their leaders think of them, then it will become a symbol and a cause of lasting resentment. In retrospect, it may come to be seen as a defining moment of Cameron's leadership.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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